And this is our situation in 2019, that a great man, Frederick Douglass came and went, and he was not heard, not listened to.
Why was that? Why wasn’t he heard? And why today do people, probably most people, certainly Donald Trump’s people, about a third of the voting poblic, still not get it, Douglass’s message, his truth, about who we are.
Because we are today, or ought to be now some 150 years later than when Douglass spoke those words, the very country and nation that he was describing, the nation that we should be now. But we’re not. Why has not this nation, the nation of Frederick Douglass, become the nation of all of us?
I take what follows from Jill Lepore’s excellent piece in a recent Foreign Affairs:
“The most significant statement in this debate was made by a man born into slavery who had sought his own freedom and fought for decades for emancipation, citizenship, and equal rights. In 1869, in front of audiences across the country, Frederick Douglass delivered one of the most important and least read speeches in American political history, urging the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments in the spirit of establishing a “composite nation.” He spoke, he said, “to the question of whether we are the better or the worse for being composed of different races of men.” If nations, which are essential for progress, form from similarity, what of nations like the United States, which are formed out of difference, Native American, African, European, Asian, and every possible mixture, “the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world”?
“To Republicans like Higby, who objected to Chinese immigration and to birthright citizenship, and to Democrats like Davis, who objected to citizenship and voting rights for anyone other than white men, Douglass offered an impassioned reply. As for the Chinese: “Do you ask, if I would favor such immigration? I answer, I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would.” As for future generations, and future immigrants to the United States, Douglass said, “I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours.” For Douglass, progress could only come in this new form of a nation, the composite nation. “We shall spread the network of our science and civilization over all who seek their shelter, whether from Asia, Africa, or the Isles of the sea,” he said, and “all shall here bow to the same law, speak the same language, support the same Government, enjoy the same liberty, vibrate with the same national enthusiasm, and seek the same national ends.”
”That was Douglass’ new Americanism. It did not prevail.”